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Other I'm Having Some Trouble

  1. Apr 12, 2017 #1
    Hello, all! I'm glad to be here! I just need some advice from some people.
    I'm 13, and I want to be a theoretical physicist when I grow up. I am trying to teach myself mathematical concepts that go beyond what I'm learning in school right now. I hope to learn Calculus within the next 2 years (I know, crazy ambition, I just set very high goals for myself).

    One of my problems is my ambition. I want to contribute to theoretical physics later in life, but I feel like I have to be an absolute genius to do so. I don't consider myself very smart, even though I'm in advanced classes. I look at other people like Jacob Barnett (Have you heard of him?) Who learned quantum mechanics and went to University at the age of 8. Yet, here I am, just starting to learn some trigonometry. Do I have to be super-ultra-mega intellegent to be a theoretical physicist?

    Also, I feel like I have to think about physics ALL of the time. For example, I currently want to buy either a microscope or a drum kit with some money I've earned, but a voice in the back of my head says, "Oh, don't buy either! You'll lose your interest in physics!"

    The reason I'm so scared to lose interest in physics is because I feel like if I did, I'd throw my life away. I adore physics, but when I feel like doing or learning something else, I feel ashamed.

    I also feel like school is holding me back from thinking. I want to learn all of these things, but I have to spend half of my day at school 'learning' about the easiest topics ever like, "Ooh, igneous rocks come from magma or lava! Ooh, factoring polynomials!" I have to also spend that time with horrible teachers who just want a paycheck instead of wanting to make kids excited about learning.

    Then, I have to spend a quarter of my day doing things like playing with my parrot and eating dinner. Then I have around 1-2 hours of free time at around 6:30 P.M. Most of that time is spent with my family. So I barely have any time to read or learn (You may say, ''Why can't you do that in school?" Well, my school is very noisy, and I like reading in quiet conditions). I have no time to think about the wonders of our Universe. I don't want to skip a grade (Even though I feel like school is too easy) because I feel like I'm just being melodramatic about all of this.

    So, I need some help. I should probably just stop overreacting and setting crazy goals for myself. But should I still try to be a physicist? Sorry for all of the personal stuff. Also, sorry for any bad grammar.
    Last edited by a moderator: Aug 18, 2017 at 11:35 AM
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 12, 2017 #2
    There is certainly no reason you cannot be a theoretical physicist, but age 13 is a bit early to dedicate your life to this goal. While that is certainly a worthy goal, there are also other valuable goals in life, and you need to develop a bit more perspective.

    Keep plugging away, learning as much as you can, but don't get worried about it. It will come in due time, or you may find something esles more exciting that you have not yet discovered. I suggest in particular, that you think about how you want to interact with other people. Most of us find our greatest joys in other people, rather than simply in knowledge or things.
  4. Apr 12, 2017 #3
    I would like to elaborate on Dr. D's response by taking excerpts from an article by Leon Lederman 1988 Nobel Prize winner in Physics in his answer to questions raised by an undergraduate about aptitude and hard work for success in physics " Low Pay and Long Hours", Physics Today, January 1995.

    Dr.. Lederman was an average student in H.S. albeit a good one with B, B+ average

    He graduated from a tough but not too well know in Chemistry .Cum Lauda B+ average. He became interested in physics as an undergraduate. He earned his physics Ph.D. from Columbia University.

    He recognize he was below the class leaders in HS and college, they were his friends whom he liked to be with and stay with and that was enough.

    Being average in HS or College is not decisive But find out about yourself , How much do you enjoy science even as an observer.

    Aim high.

    What drives you? Ask yourself hard questions about your motivations. What gives you pleasure. what do you think is worthwhile. At this stage you do not have to eat and drink physics 24/7 or ever for that matter. Don't be afraid to study at other sciences in fact it may be helpful. If physics is meant for you, you will not be dissuaded to pursue it. Look at Dr. Lederman.

    And of course hard work. But I might add that you do not notice the work for it does not seem like work when you keep your focus on the goals to which you are driven.

    He goes on to say that most scientist are really not all that brilliant. Some are even slow but they are solid. i.e. they know what they have to know. no matter how long it takes.

    One point of caution. You will probably have more poor teachers. DO NOT use that as an excuse for poor performance. (I almost made that mistake). Ask questions of the teacher as much as possible to help with the course and work with other students as necessary.

    As you clarify your motivations and aspirations you will organize you time to deal with distractions but you should not do that to the exclusion of your family and other responsibilities for they will define your character which you will need as a professional scientist. Physics is more often than not a continual collaboration.
    You will find the time to learn what you desire if you want it bad enough. It is when you have self doubts that problems seem insurmountable.

    Good Luck
  5. Apr 12, 2017 #4
    I commend your enthusiasm for physics! I'd like to make a couple of points that will hopefully provide some perspective.

    1) You can certainly be a theoretical physicist (or whatever you want, for that matter) with hard work. I'm earning my PhD in theoretical physics right now, and I didn't even choose to become a physics major until my sophomore year in college. That's anecdotal evidence, but with work/focus you can do *almost* anything. And the great part is you don't have to decide that now, which brings me to my next point...

    2) Physics is not something that you do at the expense of other things, it is a way that you see/understand the world. So feel free to do other things, too. As you're using your microscope, try to think about why it works (how far do you have to move the stage to bring something into focus, why are the lenses different diameters, if you hooked up a bunch of microscopes end-to-end what is the tiniest thing you could see?). If you're playing your drums, toss some sand on top. What kind of pattern does it make? Simply trying to understand the world is one of the best ways to learn physics, which brings me to my final point...

    3) Try to approach physics-learning by pursuing questions or projects, rather than trying to fill up individual boxes of knowledge (the calculus box, for instance). I've found that it's easier to see how things are connected this way. So think of a question that you've always wanted to know the answer to or a project that might be achievable. There are many examples (building a radio is a common one), but hopefully this strategy can provide the motivation that you mentioned.

    I hope this helps!
  6. Apr 12, 2017 #5


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    A professor at a very well regarded university said to me recently that most of the best theoretical physicists were actually not child prodigies. They received their PhDs in their mid to late twenties like everyone else but then advanced very quickly after that. Juan Maldacena is a great example. He received his PhD at 27 or 28 but then got tenure at Harvard three years later. While many of the child prodigies do become among the most successful, a lot don't turn out to be at the very top and many burn out. It's also difficult to know how smart someone is until they are more advanced in their education and have started doing research. Some people may not have been the best in their courses but turn out to be very creative and are great researchers. Others who were great in courses don't turn out to be original thinkers.

    Being a successful theoretical physicist does not require that you give up all outside interests. The most intelligent grad students/post docs I know are all very interesting people and have interests other than physics. Some of them who are truly geniuses even enjoy playing video games in their free time. It is actually counter productive for most people to spend all of their time on physics. Research takes an extraordinary amount of focus that you can only maintain for so long. Overworking yourself will just make you less productive. For example, if someone spends five very focused hours a day working, they may very well be more productive than someone spending twelve hours a day. The first person will be more energized and focused when they are working and they even may have more ideas when they are not "working" (as in thinking about something while they are taking a nice walk for example).
  7. Apr 15, 2017 #6
    My advice is, school does suck, and most of the classes you'll learn do not help you and are a waste of time.
    My advice is, free your parrot to it's appropriate habitat, both of you will benefit.
    After that, you will have more free time.
    You can use that free-time to play physics based videogames, and make videogames that have physics in them.

    Also, I would whine and complain to your parents and society, until people realize you are a gifted boy, interested in physics, and put you into a more interesting school.
  8. Apr 15, 2017 #7
    It would be difficult for me to disagree more strongly with this comment. Properly seen, school is by far and away the easiest, fastest way to learn new material. Sure, there will be some poor teachers, but few people teach because they seek to torment students. Most teachers want to teach, whether they are good at it or not.

    Without my freshman physics class in classical mechanics, I would likely not have found my intellectual true love. I was blessed with a great teacher (very hard, very demanding, and very excellent teacher) who showed me what I wanted to do for a career. He was unkind to me in some ways, particularly by some very biased advice he gave me, but still he taught me about the wonders of mechanics and I thank him for that. My professional career grew entirely out of that class.
  9. Apr 15, 2017 #8
    Good for you. I had a similar experience in highschool as well. I met a professor whom I enjoyed his classes and also altered my worldview. That being said, 90% of my classes were a waste of time. If you got a few gems from it, or found one good class, that doesn't mean that school in general is not a waste of time.
  10. Apr 15, 2017 #9
    It is certainly true that one case proves nothing, the collective experience of mankind through the ages is that school is worthwhile. One assertion to the contrary proves nothing.
  11. Apr 16, 2017 #10
    My only advice to you is to learn as much mathematics as you can, starting with a good grasp on basics like calculus, analysis, trigonometry, some linear algebra and *maybe* set thoery, logic and proofs. Because this will help or make it easier to understand the physics later on!
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